Smyrna: Staying Faithful Unto Death
Some of you know the story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. They married in 1953 on Jim’s 26th birthday. Elisabeth was 21. They served as missionaries in the jungles of Ecuador. The bulk of their time was spent reaching the Quechua Indians with the gospel. In the fall of 1955—this would be ten months after celebrating the birth of their daughter Valerie—Jim and four other brothers made contact with the Huaorani tribe. For some time, they would drop gifts from an airplane to show the tribe that they had peaceful reasons for being there.
In January of 1957, they finally found a way to land the plane near this people’s village, and for several days interacted with a few of the men and women. Five days later, though, out of fear and a desire to protect their tribe, several Huaorani men speared Jim and the other four brothers to death. Jim lived and died by his words: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Now, I mention this story not just to reflect on what gave Jim and these brothers their courage. I also mention it to reflect on what gave Elisabeth courage to continue working with the Huaoranis. She learned the language of the people who speared her husband. Then she went to live with them. Valerie was three.
In one of the documentaries, they interview Elisabeth. She talks about these two Huaorani women asking to see her; and she says, “So of course we said Yes instantly.” These same two women then ask Elisabeth to return with them to the village. Elisabeth asks them, “Will your people spear me the same way they speared my husband?” The women say, “No, you’re our friend.” Three weeks later Elisabeth takes Valerie and Rachel Saint to live with the Huaorani—and the result of these exchanges is that many Huaoranis know Christ, including the man who killed Elisabeth’s husband…
What gives Christians such courage to be faithful in the face of death? What gives someone like Elisabeth the courage to live with the very people who speared her husband? What will give you courage to be faithful when the tribulation pressures you to give up? Jesus’ message to the church in Smyrna answers that question; and it’s an answer we all need. Otherwise, in the face of suffering, fear will lead us to compromise. This message to Smyrna will show us that by depending on Christ and making ourselves rich in his kingdom, God enables faithfulness even when we’re afraid. Verse 8…
8 And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. 9 I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”
This is the second of seven messages to seven churches. As Revelation circulated among the seven churches, Smyrna would’ve been next on the major trade route. Smyrna had a large harbor and was among the wealthier cities. You might know it as Izmir, today’s third largest city in Turkey.[i] Something unique to this message is that Jesus has no rebuke for the church in Smyrna. He rebuked the church in Ephesus for abandoning love. He has rebukes for four other churches as well. But there’s no rebuke for the church in Smyrna or the church in Philadelphia. That should grab you.
What makes these churches different from the others? Both churches are facing a lot of suffering, a lot of persecution. Meaning, the less a church compromises in their faithfulness to Jesus, the more the world will hate them. The more a church looks like Jesus, the more the world will hate them as they hated Jesus. Christians in Smyrna seem to be following Jesus without compromise. But that faithfulness has led to great suffering, great persecution, great pressure to get them to compromise.
Satan Wars against the Church in Smyrna
In fact, Jesus gives us the heavenly perspective on their sufferings; and from that horizon we see that Satan wars against this church. Jesus says, “I know your tribulation…” Tribulation has to do with sufferings we face in the path of obedience. An entire system of rebellion stands against Jesus and the people who represent Jesus.
One way they’re feeling it is poverty: “I know your tribulation and your poverty…” Yes, Jesus also adds, “but you are rich.” But he means that in a different sense. Economically, they are poor. Spiritually, they are rich. By way of contrast, the church in Laodicea is economically rich but spiritually poor (Rev 3:15-22). So, Jesus tells the church in Laodicea to buy from him gold refined by fire, so that they might become truly rich. The riches in mind are riches of the kingdom that one gains through obedience.
But here’s the pattern in Revelation. If you are spiritually rich—if you make yourself rich in Jesus’ kingdom—the world has the tendency to make you economically poor. Your faithfulness to Jesus could mean nobody wants to hire you anymore. It could mean authorities plunder your property, like it did for the Christians in Hebrews 10:32. It could mean imprisonment, and that’s not a place where you can support the family.
In 13:17 it means that people can’t buy and sell without some compromise with the Beast. Idolatry and corruption so permeated every aspect of city life that the only way to buy and sell was to participate in it. “Bow to our flag or we will ruin your cake business,” might be one comparison. But if your allegiance is with Jesus and not the Beast—who’s controlled by Satan, by the way—you can’t buy and sell anymore. That’s how bad it gets. Poverty often comes because of an uncompromising faith in Jesus.
Another way they’re feeling the tribulation is slander. “I know…the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Slander applies when someone publishes a false statement to damage your reputation. In this case, Jews spread false things about Christians to get them arrested. Jews did this in the book of Acts, didn’t they? Acts 14:2 says, “they poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the brothers.” In Acts 17:5, some Jews get jealous, they stir up a mob and then blame it on the Christians. They couldn’t find anything against the Christians legally, so they made stuff up to get authorities involved in stopping Christianity.
As a result, Jesus calls them a “synagogue of Satan.” Why? Because Satan is the father of lies. Some of the Jews were doing the same thing to Jesus in John 8. But Jesus confronts them: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Being a Jew, being a true child of Abraham means more than just sharing a bloodline. You must also share Abraham’s faith in Jesus. Instead, these Jews have joined Satan in his war against the saints.
Another part of their tribulation is imprisonment. Verse 10, “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.” So, the Jews are in cahoots with Satan—that was verse 9. Now, Rome is in cahoots with Satan as well. From an earthly perspective, it’s just Rome imprisoning Christians. But from the heavenly perspective, it’s the devil. Satan stands behind the actions of these government officials.
These Christians are also feeling the threat of death. “Be faithful unto death,” Jesus says. Not all imprisonments ended with death for Christians. The New Testament elsewhere gives examples of miraculous escapes or other government officials washing their hands of a problem. But this imprisonment would mean death. Their faith would be tested to the point of death—no going home, no more family birthdays, no more laughter with the children, no more pleasant sunrises. Just waiting for execution.
Poverty, slander, imprisonment, death—Satan uses all these things in his war against the church. He uses all these things to pressure us to compromise. Think of Job as well; and the way he tested Job and tried sifting him through all kinds of suffering. Think of the way Peter says Satan prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour; and in context that “devouring” has to do with persecution. The devil rages against the church; and that will mean great suffering for many.
Christians Win the War by Staying Faithful unto Death
If Satan makes war against the church this way, how are we supposed to win? How are we supposed to conquer? How does Jesus command us to fight? We do not win the war by taking up arms. We do not win the war by taking people’s lives. We win the war by staying faithful even when others want to take our lives. We conquer by staying faithful unto death. Jesus gives two commands.
The first is this: “do not fear.” Verse 10, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Jesus says something similar in Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Do not fear. For those in Christ, there is no need to be afraid.
The second command complements the first: “Be faithful unto death.” Don’t negotiate with the devil. Don’t compromise your allegiance to Christ. When you’re thinking about how you won’t get to kiss your wife goodnight anymore, or how your daughter might now grow up with you, don’t give up. Even when the circumstances may require your death, don’t let them stop you from being faithful. Revelation 12:11, “they have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” That’s how we win the war.
How to choose faithfulness when afraid?
Still, I want to know how. I want to know how to choose faithfulness even when I’m afraid. Don’t you? You read these stories from church history—like Jim and Elisabeth Elliot—and you think, “I don’t know if I could’ve taken my three-year old daughter into the jungle like that?” You hear about the threats to the church in Afghanistan right now—these are your brothers and sisters. They’re just like you. You put yourself in their shoes and you can feel the fear in your gut: “There’s no way out. What are they going to do to our families? To my girls?” We fear for ourselves. We fear for other believers. How, then, when we’re afraid, do we choose faithfulness—the kind of faithfulness that sticks with Jesus even when it means death? How, when we’re afraid to do that next thing, to take that next step—how do we choose faithfulness?
The answers are here in our passage. This is your application. This is what you need to take home to grow in faithfulness. For starters we must learn to trust in the sovereignty of Christ over all things. Notice how Jesus introduces himself in verse 8. He is “the first and the last.” That title appears in Isaiah 41:4, 44:6, and 48:12. Each time God distinguishes himself from the nations and their idols. The nations and their idols lack any power to determine the future.[ii] But God who is “the first and the last” not only knows the future before it takes place; he creates the future by his sovereign word.[iii] Neither the nations nor their gods are really in control. Jesus is. He is sovereign.
Same here when we face tribulation—Jesus controls everything. Nothing comes to us that’s outside his sovereign will. We also see his sovereignty in that he knows everything about them, including what will happen to them. He tells them what will happen before it takes place. We also see his sovereignty in that he limits evil. Throughout Revelation, you will find a pattern of Christ limiting evil, limiting the devil’s ability. Here, too, we see that evil only gets ten days. When we face tribulation, we must remember that nothing will come to us apart from Jesus’ sovereign purpose. He knows what we are facing. And he limits evil and one day will bring it to its end.
I’ve mentioned him before, but Josef Tson is an evangelist. He also pastored in communist Romania in the 80s, suffering a great deal for his faith. He once encouraged an audience to make the sovereignty of God the first pillar in your theology. Then he tells a story of how a robust vision of God’s sovereignty helped him through suffering.
At one point in his ministry, the authorities decided to put him on trial for preaching the gospel in Romania. Before the trial is the statement to the police. He said, imagine a long table with six senior officers and the prosecutor. They deliver the indictment; and then proceeded with a speech about how grave his actions were. Then to his amazement the colonel says, “You know, after all, isn’t it written in Romans 13 that we are of God; and you challenge us?” Pastor Tson then says, “Sir, will you let me explain how I understand Romans 13 in this situation? Sir, yes, you are God’s instruments. No doubt about that. But what happens here is not between you and me. What happens here is between my God and myself. God has some dealings with me here…Maybe he wants to teach me a few lessons. But sir, you will not do to me anything but what God decided you to do, because you are only my God’s instruments.” Then he says, “You know, he didn’t like that interpretation.”
But then he asks this: “If all your enemies are God’s instruments, why are you afraid?” Jesus is always in control. He has his purposes. Sometimes it’s to test us and refine our faith. Sometimes it’s to embolden the witness of other Christians when they see us being faithful. Sometimes it’s to keep our longings in the right age. Sometimes it’s to exemplify the way Christ loved us by being faithful unto death. Sometimes it’s to display the worth of Christ in what we’re willing to give up for him. Sometimes it’s all the above. Whatever his purposes are, though, we must trust that he’s in control. This truth will help replace our fears with faithfulness.
Something else that will help—rejoicing in Christ’s victory through death. In verse 8 again, Jesus is the one “who died and came to life.” How reassuring would that aspect of Jesus’ glory be to a church who’s about to suffer and die for their faith? Jesus already entered death and came out alive. Even more, Jesus chose to enter death to take away the sting caused by our sin. Then he rose to ensure all his people will one day share a resurrection body like his own. This truth leads us to follow Jesus in laying down our lives as well in the spread of the gospel to all nations.
John Paton was a minister from Scotland. He taught for several years in Glasgow. He then answered the Lord’s call at age 33 to take the gospel to a people on a stretch of islands called the New Hebrides. The natives to these islands were cannibals. They would eat the flesh of their defeated foes. They also practiced infanticide and widow sacrifice. Before Paton was called to the Islands, two other missionaries had preceded him, John Williams and James Harris. But they were killed and eaten by cannibals shortly after arriving on shore. Yet he still chooses to go. What gives him the courage? I think we find it in these words from his autobiography:
“Amongst many who sought to deter me [from going to the Islands], was one dear old Christian gentleman, whose crowning argument always was, ‘The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!’ At last I replied, ‘Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in th[at] Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.’”[iv]
He says next that Mr. Dickson threw his hands in the air: “I have nothing left to say.” But there it is—resurrection power enabling Paton to choose faithfulness. By following Jesus into death, Jesus will be faithful to raise you again. Jesus has the “keys of Death and Hades.” If he says, “Open,” the grave must listen; and it will for you who die in the Lord. Rejoice in this truth now. Preach it to yourself now. Don’t wait till you’re suffering to start thinking about resurrection. It must become part of you now.
Third, God enables faithfulness amidst fears when we invest in the riches of Christ’s kingdom. Don’t miss the importance of that parenthesis in verse 9: “but you are rich.” If we are to endure persecution without compromise, Christ must be our treasure before persecution. If you’re too attached to your stuff, you won’t be able to let it go when persecution comes. If you’re too attached life here and now, you won’t stick with the Savior when he calls you to lay it all down. You will be like the Rich Young Ruler who walked away from Jesus. You will be like the third soil, where the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
Take it from the words of a pastor who endured fourteen years of imprisonment and torture in communist Romania. Richard Wurmbrand once wrote:
What shall we do about these tortures? Will we be able to bear them? If I do not bear them, I put in prison another fifty or sixty men whom I know, because that is what the Communists wish from me, to betray those around me. And here comes the great need for the role of preparation for suffering which must start now. It is too difficult to prepare yourself for [suffering] when the Communists have put you in prison…In prison you lose everything. You are undressed and given a prisoner’s suit. No more nice furniture, nice carpets, or nice curtains. You do not have a wife anymore and you do not have your children. You do not have your library and you never see a flower. Nothing of what makes life pleasant remains. Nobody resists who has not renounced the pleasures of life beforehand.
How rich are you in Christ this morning? If they come and burn your house to the ground—along with all your precious things—will you still sing the hymns you sang today? Will you still have your greatest Treasure? Make yourself rich in Christ, and he will enable you to choose faithfulness when you’re afraid.
“How do I make myself rich in Christ?” you might ask. One way we do this is by relating to Christ as our most valuable possession. Spend time with him in the word and in prayer. Sing of his greatness. With every opportunity you have meditate on his glorious person and work. Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” What are you giving up to have more of Christ?
We also make ourselves rich in Christ when we use our wealth to care for others in need. To the rich in 1 Timothy 6:18-19 Paul says, “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure…for the future.” We also grow rich in Christ when we seek the reward of his final kingdom by following his commands. This is what lies behind his words to the church in Laodicea. To buy from Jesus gold refined by fire has to do with pursuing the treasures of the New Jerusalem, even if it means you suffer in the path of obedience. Your obedience to Jesus tells the world that the treasures in his final kingdom are greater than the ones here.
So, investing in your relationship with Jesus, holding your stuff loosely and being generous with what you have, aiming for kingdom rewards through obedience—these are all ways we become rich in Christ now.
Finally, speaking of reward, hope in the reward of Christ for faithfulness. In verses 10 and 11, Jesus makes two promises. “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life”—that’s one. The second promise is like it—“The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”
The “second death” is worse than a person’s first death. Revelation 21:8 equates it with the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. Jesus will raise the wicked and consign them to the lake of fire, where there will be no rest but only agony. But for those who are faithful, Jesus promises they will escape that punishment—the second death will not hurt them. Instead, they will gain the crown of life. It is a victor’s crown, like a crown someone might gain for winning a race or a hard-fought battle. Jesus will crown his people with life, a life that never ends but only grows richer in God’s presence.
Don’t miss the irony. When the world kills Christians, it thinks Christians are losing. But from the heavenly perspective, Christians are winning. They conquer by faithfulness unto death. They conquer by laying their lives down as their Lord laid down his life. Christians are wearing the crown that counts.
When you are afraid, don’t lose sight of this hope. When the pressure of this tribulation scares you—when it leaves you worried and anxious—renew your confidence in Christ’s promise to give you the crown of life. Jesus isn’t telling us to ignore the facts of your pain, to ignore what you might suffer in the path of obedience. He doesn’t tell them to pretend the imprisonment isn’t happening. In fact, he doesn’t hesitate to tell them it’s about to get worse. At the same time, they must view these temporary sufferings in the light of eternal reward. When they’re compared to the reward of eternal life in God’s presence, faithfulness unto death is well worth it.
As Elisabeth Elliot put it, “…obedience is costly, but the rewards of obedience are priceless—among the few things we cannot lose.”[v] What are some of your greatest fears? Are these fears compromising your faithfulness now? Are they fears that could lead you to compromise when pressured by tribulation later? Jesus has written a letter to help you choose faithfulness when afraid. By trusting in the sovereignty of Christ, by rejoicing in Christ’s victory over death, by making yourself rich in his kingdom, by hope in his reward for faithfulness—God enables us to choose faithfulness even when we’re afraid. Let the one who has hears hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
[i] Fanning, Revelation, 126.
[ii] Isa 41:4; 44:6-28; 46:10; 48:11-16.
[iii] Isa 44:7-9, 18-19; 48:3, 6-8, 11-16; cf. 41:22-24; 42:9; 43:9b; 45:21; 46:10. I am indebted to Paul Hoskins for providing the insight into how Isaiah’s use of the title “the first and the last” contrasts Yahweh with the false gods of the nations in the manner specified here.
[iv] Paton, Missionary, 56.
[v] Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty, 9.